USA Football, the national governing body of the amateur version of the sport, made a seemingly minor announcement on June 7 that may in fact symbolize one of the most dramatic paradigm shifts in the history of American athlete development. This fall, the organization will debut a pilot program called Rookie Tackle that will introduce a football training environment based on the principles of the American Development Model, a youth sports training philosophy imported from Canada that embraces a holistic approach to athletic development. The program is meant to serve as a bridge that will usher youth players from flag football into the world of tackle football, and it includes a number of modifications to the typical youth football experience. Among them are a reduction in the number of players on the field, the scaling of field sizes to fit age and development levels, the encouragement of players to try different positions, and several rule changes aimed at promoting athlete development and reducing injuries.
To understand why this marks such a momentous shift for the United States — and the role that Canada played in it — it's helpful to look back to the Cold War. Before the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, held during the thick of geopolitical competition between East and West, athlete development and sport governance in the United States were characterized by a staunch adherence to the guiding principles prescribed by capitalism and federalism. Developing elite athletes was seen as the purview of the market, explicitly decentralized and dispersed to localized actors and organizations. Not only was this approach the byproduct of an implicit systemic and philosophical preference for market-based solutions, but it also served as a more explicit symbolic departure from the state-run, centralized East bloc systems of athlete development. In this sense, the United States' approach represented the "American Way" while at the same time rebuffing the methods of its adversaries.
During the Munich Games, however, several high-profile cases of underperformance by U.S. athletes and administrative missteps were punctuated by the men's basketball team's controversial loss to the Soviet Union in the gold medal game. The dramatic conclusion to the game is worthy of its own retelling, but for the purposes of American sport governance and athlete development policy, the effects of the national embarrassment and outrage felt over the loss can still be seen today. In fact, the members of the U.S. team have yet to accept the silver medals they were awarded for the disputed loss.
One Giant Leap for American Sports
Clearly the championship contest wasn't just any game, or even a typical gold medal contest. Rather, it was an event that drew the world's attention to the battle between competing ideological systems. The magnitude of the defeat led to a swift and vocal outcry for change in U.S. sport development from the general public and government officials alike. In that moment, concern over the implications of the loss catalyzed a movement to create a centralized administrative body capable of providing more oversight and coordination in U.S. amateur sports. But adopting a system designed to promote greater government intervention was tantamount to acknowledging the superiority of the Soviet model — something the political climate of the time made difficult to do.
The result? A political Catch-22 that led to a lengthy legislative process in which politicians tried to balance the need to provide a compelling response to competitive shortcomings with the need to maintain a clear distance from any endorsement of East bloc philosophies of government intervention and top-down centralization. This dilemma ultimately led to the passage of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, a measure that was the equivalent of a legislative punt. The law set down broad stipulations (most notably one that officially transferred the power to coordinate Olympic sports to the U.S. Olympic Committee) paired with unclear enforcement mechanisms, creating legislation incapable of achieving much for sports or athlete development beyond placating Cold War-era insecurities. Perhaps surprisingly, the Amateur Sports Act remains the only piece of federal legislation with a primary focus on sports at the national level.
The importance of the Amateur Sports Act goes beyond simply offering an instructive snapshot of the political challenges of the time. In fact, the ideological debate that helped shape the legislation had the more far-reaching effect of casting the proverbial die for a sport system that would eschew centralization and government coordination in perpetuity. In essence, the lack of actual policy in the law has given rise to a system that is structurally resistant to centralization and coordination.
Almost three decades later, in 2009, USA Hockey became the first national governing body in the United States to pilot and roll out a coordinated system based on the principles of long-term athlete development — a philosophy pioneered by the research of Istvan Balyi for Canada's Sport for Life organization. Ken Martel, a longtime coach and administrator with USA Hockey, was charged by the organization to revitalize and rejuvenate the sport in the United States in his new role as the technical director of its American Development Model program. At that point, the long-term athlete development program's holistic, stage-based system for developing athletes had permeated Canada's national sporting bodies and had been adopted by many other developed countries. But with its centralized and coordinated training systems and pathways for athlete development, the philosophy hadn't caught on in the United States.
For as intuitive as the Canadian model was, its tenets were revolutionary enough to the U.S. way of thinking that its name and branding had to be Americanized. When he introduced the American Development Model, Martel often began presentations with a video clip of President John F. Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In the early years, the effort to change U.S. hearts and minds about a centralized approach to amateur athlete development was considered an equally bold mission.
Rethinking the American Way
Today, the rebranded U.S. offspring of the Canadian development program has become much more widely acknowledged and, to a lesser extent, adopted. USA Hockey is in its ninth year of using the system, and other national governing bodies such as US Lacrosse have recently adopted their own versions of it. Yet in spite of those bodies' growing willingness to adopt the American Development Model, athletes in those sports still tend to develop within more self-contained, peripheral systems that make the experiment more tenable. And even though ideas influenced by this development philosophy have begun to seep into more mainstream team sports like basketball (the NBA and USA Basketball last year released an initial set of youth participation guidelines aimed at curtailing early specialization and capping time spent on organized participation), they walk the proverbial line that U.S. sporting bodies have consistently drawn — incentivizing recommendations instead of issuing mandates.
This brings us back to why the USA Football announcement could be so significant. Rookie Tackle takes the American Development Model principles a step further in trying to build pathways for athlete progression in a way that has not traditionally been seen in the United States' major youth team sports. Perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures. A major selling point of the American Development Model is its emphasis on developing athletes through measured, stage-specific, periodized training that emphasizes injury prevention as part of its broader constellation of benefits. There has been a marked decline in youth football participation over the past decade, in part because of rising awareness about the effects of concussions and chronic trauma. It only makes sense that the sport's governing body would try to counter that trend.
Whether it's the Pop Warner youth football league limiting the amount of contact allowed during practice, the collegiate Ivy League eliminating tackling in practice, or the NFL showcasing flag football during the Super Bowl halftime, it's clear that U.S. football's organizational stakeholders are finally motivated — or threatened — enough to re-envision a future for youth football that involves less contact. Within this context, the Rookie Tackle program will serve as a trial balloon for whether Americans' historical resistance to the coordination and centralization of athlete development is weakening. And even though the program is unlikely to usher in a complete overhaul of sport development systems overnight, its validation of the American Development Model represents a shift that until recently seemed unthinkable, if not downright unpatriotic.